Friday, 14 September 2007
So much shark behaviour seems to depend on whether we can see them or not, my main example of that being the time my step-son climbed upon a coral, and instantly the blackfin swimming with us went to him and sniffed his legs, quite aware, it seemed, that having his head above the water he could not see her. This came to mind again last night when I was drifting at dusk sketching the fin of an unknown juvenile blackfin who was roaming nearby. A movement off to the side caught my attention and I saw a good sized lemon shark approaching, already only a few feet away. They always look incongruous coming through the narrow coral canyons, seeming as big as a baby whale, though they are really smaller than that. Not wanting to startle him, I waited, perfectly still, for him to see me. He had a white spot on the tip of his nose, and that dazzling lemon shark smile.
Once my husband and I decided to celebrate Christmas by going to the end of Tahiti. The landscape resembled gently rolling hills covered with sage—the sage being the coral--always sloping downwards ever more steeply, into deepening gloom. Past 120 feet, huge dark purple roses bloomed around us, and the valleys deepened into gulches falling away. The light dimmed as we drifted downwards and finally we could see below that mysterious twilit place, the end of Tahiti. There the drop-off fell straight to the ocean floor, into the utter blackness of the abyss. We were at 200 feet and I was in a dream, more narcked than I had ever been, when a lemon shark came slowly, steadily, almost vertically, up out of the dark. So alien, the beauty; it might just as well have been another world. It saw us and turned towards us, the effect of its relentless oncoming heightened by the movement, back and forth, back and forth, of it's head with open mouth. The grotesque smile was hypnotic, and I saw with wonder that it had visited a joke shop and replaced its normal teeth with two inch spikes just to impress us. I waited for it to turn, actually physically preparing for a fight as I reflected on the reasons it might have for that open mouth. About eight feet away, the shark turned, and just as slowly disappeared into the gloom. My husband took my hand and we began swimming back up towards the light, me looking back often to the mystical place where the island ended.
So with dentition like that, it amazed me again that this lemon shark last night paused and turned away the moment he saw me, a small spindly creature under the surface. They're so shy! His path took him within inches of the little juvenile and neither shark reacted to the close proximity of the other. I went behind a dead coral formation out of the way, hoping he might come back. After a few minutes the slow moving behemoth appeared briefly just within visual range, then disappeared again. This was no accident; he came to look. I waited for awhile, occasionally checking behind me, because often the next thing they will do is come from behind to see. But it was getting dark fast, and I wanted to go. Becoming impatient, I went to my boat and was putting my camera and slate inside when I remembered that its just when my patience comes to its end that the animal often comes, their patience lasting just that little bit longer. So I swam back to my place at the coral, and as I did so, the lemon shark passed me coming from behind.
On another occasion, a lemon shark came with my sharks when I had brought them some food. I didn't feel very comfortable with him there, particularly since the current was so bad I could scarcely swim against it, which put me at a disadvantage, so instead of swimming around I stayed at my boat. Nevertheless, I threw in some tuna heads for him that I had brought for the nurse sharks, then wondered at my sanity when they landed so close to the boat that I felt to retreat up the anchor rope. The lemon shark came and went repeatedly, to my increasing irritation because some of my favourite sharks were just down-current and I wanted to go and see them. So, when he had not appeared for awhile, I let go of the boat and drifted down-current. The lemon shark came immediately, barely discernible through the cloudy light, and he went straight to my boat which he circled around for a time before disappearing again. He was very well aware of what I was doing, just as I had been keeping track of him. (Sharks usually keep watch over suspicious situations from beyond visual range, and that is why often they just appear in the distance for a moment to take a look, then disappear behind their curtain of blue). Later I saw this comparatively huge shark, nine or ten feet long and very stout, nosing slowly along the body of a tiny nurse shark, the size and colour of a human baby, who was munching on a bone. The lack of aggression towards the tiny creature that he could have inhaled whole had he wished, was striking.
Sharks often follow objects of their interest out of sight. To learn who is following you, stop and drift slowly backwards. And there they are, the sneaky things, caught in the act!
There was another occasion, again when it was nearly dark, that a lemon shark came sweeping into my fish party at high speed. There were several sharks over six feet there already, and a couple of about eight feet. I was feeding the fish, and a tiny brightly coloured eel kept waving the front half of his body out of his hole near my right hand. So now and again I tried to waft a bit of food to him. The multispecies cloud of fish agitating in front of me were so thick that I really couldn't see beyond them. I was running on instinct, trying to make sure that each fish got something: a bite for the butterfly fish looking into my mask, a scattering of crumbs for the needlefish at the surface, a bit for the rock cod waiting on my dead coral hold-fast, a handful for the squirrel fishes in the hole to my left, some bigger pieces for the groupers, and something for the five foot moray eel whose head was swaying just below my left elbow. And all the while, whenever I wasn't looking, the tiny eel would touch my hands with the softest, most delicate touches. Suddenly I felt that there was too much agitation in the site: two of the big sharks were moving too fast. So I dropped the tuna head I was using to feed the fish and drifted leftwards just as the lemon shark swept into the circle. Everyone present shot outwards from the centre, an effect called a flash expansion, used at times by fish as a protective measure. The visual effect was incredible—hundreds upon hundreds of jewel-coloured fish shooting outwards in a sunburst pattern along with sharks of all sizes moving at lightspeed. The lemon shark zoomed straight to the tuna head I had dropped and went nearly vertical, (as much as a three meter shark who is fatter than a horse can in two meters of water), with a great deal of tumult, as he tried to extricate it from under the coral. He failed, and came along behind the coral wall I had been using as a hold-fast. Horrified at this turn of events, since I had heard that lemon sharks can become irrationally angry, and this shark was already in a huff of some sort, (plus it was nearly dark), I remembered I had promised myself a photo of the next lemon shark, and readied my camera, an underwater throwaway, bought just for such unexpected opportunities since my usual one was being fixed.
Amazingly, the huge shark still had not seen me, and as he approached, I saw in awe that his head was covered with long, deep, criss crossing scars! He was just about underneath me when I took the picture, and he reacted so fast when I moved my finger to press the button, that the photo shows him already turned. How he got turned around in that narrow space is hard to picture, but he accelerated away and vanished. Shaking with terror, I threw my stuff into the boat and nearly drowned trying to get my anchor out from under the coral where it had become lodged, so frantic was I to get out of the water before he came back.
Once in the boat, I drifted, watching, over the glassy waters, rainbow colours melting together beneath the afterglow of the western sky. But I did not see the lemon shark, or any shark, reappear in those twilight waters.
Ila France Porcher